I’m pleased to announce that I have been offered a contract to publish my sixth novel, The Fire Trail. So I am particularly thankful to God as we approach this national day of Thanksgiving.
But I am also thankful for Thanksgiving itself. It is a time to be reminded to cultivate an attitude of gratitude in spite of a culture of pouting grievance. Once a year the nation recalls, with thanks, the exceptionalism of America. We look back to our history of religious liberty and the many streams of faith mapping our great land. We celebrate our history of free speech and the vitality of civil debate that built our great academic institutions. We are grateful for the remarkable centuries of relative peace ensured by the rule of law, its enforcement, and the courts that judge blindly without regard to race, gender, class, religion. No other nation can boast these things in this way.
But as we celebrate this Thanksgiving, it seems that our national and cultural firebreak, that border between civilization and the wilderness, has been breached as never before. The flames have jumped the path and are threatening our towns and very way of life.
Can we change course in time? I’m not sure. Can we put out the fires of intolerance and terror? Can we ensure those liberties we have enjoyed, for our children and our grandchildren and their children?
In many ways we have arrived at this point through our own success in creating a civilized world. Freedom carries within it its own seed of destruction. We have not worried about invasion and tyranny and submission to sharia law. In this sense we have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, for America has created a culture of ease, believing the nation would live forever. So we have become frivolous in our worries: the use of fossil fuels or windmills, offense over a slur from an officer or a teacher, academic courses that challenge rather than validate our self-esteem. The delicacy of our concerns reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.” We continue with our lives, walking on the beach, not paying attention to the tyrants who wish to conquer our shores.
Nine-eleven caused us to sit up and pay attention, as did other shootings and bombings since, and now we watch as Paris burns. We mourn, we light a candle. But Paris is far away and surely we will manage here as we always have. So we think.
Historian Niall Ferguson quoted Bryan Ward-Perkins in the London Times: “Romans before the fall were as certain as we are today that their world would continue for ever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We would be wise not to repeat their complacency.” Mr. Ferguson concludes, “Poor poor Paris. Killed by complacency.”
Indeed. But we like complacency. We are not used to having to pay attention. We have others do that for us – our elected officials, our military, our great minds. After all, we don’t have to pay attention much to vote, do we? Or do we?
Eva Moskowitz, founder and chief executive officer of Success Academy Charter Schools, claims in the Journal that her astounding success in raising test scores in poor communities has been mainly due to a single principle: the students must pay attention. She gives educator Paul Fucaloro all the credit for inspiration and teacher training, explaining how “Every child had to sit up straight and show he was paying attention…students had to sit with hands clasped and look at whomever was speaking…” The teacher called on the students rather than asking for volunteers. If the student couldn’t focus, the teacher moved the student to the front of the class. “As Paul repeatedly preached to me,” Ms. Moskowitz writes, “it’s morally wrong to let a child choose whether to pay attention, because many will make the wrong choice and we can’t let them slip through the cracks…. it’s our job to teach them to focus.”
I recall my own public school years in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties. These expectations and procedures were firmly in place. We were expected to listen and be prepared to answer. We didn’t sit in circles but in rows so that some students were brought to the front for closer supervision. Our attitude was graded and was the first grade my parents looked at. I could get away with B’s and C’s in academic subjects, but if there was the slightest question as to my attitude, or my “citizenship,” there would be a serious discussion about the report card.
It appears today you must send your children to a charter or private school to ensure this kind of discipline, which means that the average public school graduate has not always learned to focus, to pay attention, to have a positive attitude toward learning, to become a good citizen. It may be that many of the teachers were products themselves of such schooling and find it harsh and lowering of self-esteem to establish such behavior boundaries.
So, like the bored student gazing out the classroom window or secretly playing a digital game on a cell phone, Americans gaze out the window into the clouds, wondering whether weather is too cold or too hot, too wet or too dry. We campaign for slow-food and decry genetically modified food. We chase Twitter trends and indulge in bestseller porn.
The Fire Trail pays attention to these themes and so I’m especially thankful this Thanksgiving. I’m thankful, for I love America. I want America to be around for my grandchildren and their children, a free America, a peaceful America, and a grateful America. I want an America that holds up the ideal of a civilized world. I want a world that pays attention to goodness, truth, beauty, and most of all, love.
The Fire Trail calls attention to these things, where these ideals came from, and how we can best preserve them. It calls on the students in the back row with the dazed bored look and moves them to the front row. It asks them questions and listens to the answers. It encourages civil debate.
I’m thankful to God most especially this Thanksgiving for the astounding joyous privilege of living in this country for another year. I give thanks for those brave men and women on the battlefields of culture or combat who have paid attention and continue to watch out for us. They rebuild our fire trail daily. They keep America safe.
Thomas Sowell recently quoted Winston Churchill, appointed prime minister during World War II: “All I hope is that it is not too late. I am very much afraid it is. We can only do our best.”
We can only do our best: Another ideal to be thankful for.
When the student asks to be moved to the front row to better their understanding, society will share the teacher’s smile.